TiVo and User Privacy

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that TiVo is collecting and selling data on what parts of broadcasts people are rewinding for review and what commercials they are skipping. Dubbed “StopWatch,” this data-collection practice reflects the growing ease with which various media and Internet service providers can collect and exploit vast amounts of information about consumers’ everyday habits.

TiVo maintains that there is little privacy threat to end users, arguing that “We don’t know what any particular person is watching,” and “We only know what a random, anonymous sampling of our user base is watching.” While it is probably true that they are only accessing and selling a random, anonymous sampling of usage data, the larger concern is that user data is collected and stored in the first place. The fact that they only sample a random subset of the data is only a temporary comfort (and perhaps only a temporarily self-imposed restriction). And given the aftermath of AOL’s botched release of “anonymized” user data, I have less comfort with TiVo’s claim that the data is truly anonymous.

TiVo is trying to do the right thing, but I’m concerned that their execution might fail. Time will tell. (And this would make an excellent case study for any student looking to explore the privacy implications of new media technologies…hint hint)

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